By Father Ryan Rooney and Father Casey Jones, Founders, Priestfit

This 5-page cover feature about Catholic priests is a Fitser Upper story that can inspire all of us to come together to support and love each other. Being connected and having awareness is not enough. God calls every person to reach out and tell those around them – You are not alone. READ ALL 5 PAGES.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin, which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

This Bible verse inspires many to lay down their burdens with intentionality and focus as a community of witnesses.

This is the story of two Catholic priests being a witness for Christ by helping priests, and by extension their congregations, to lose some weight, to take up weights at the gym, and to refocus their understanding that God intends their bodies to be vibrant and healthy living temples of the Holy Spirit. This is Priestfit, and it is a ministry of fraternal outreach by priests and for priests challenging each other to eat clean, be fit, and pray well.

THE BIG PICTURE – A GROWING CRISIS

As of 2014, worldwide there are an estimated 414,000 Catholic Priests serving more than 1.277 Billion Catholics and even more in their communities. They run parishes, they say daily Mass, they administer sacraments like Baptism and Holy Communion, and they respond to the emergency needs of parishioners, hearing confessions, anointing the sick and dying, and celebrating many funerals. Many of them are always on call with very few breaks.  They are invited out to many functions where food and drink are in abundance, yet in their rectories many must cook for themselves. The long hours lead to the want for a fast solution.  Eating out often and scarfing down unhealthy food is the quick choice. How many are overweight or clinically obese?

DENIAL IN THE DATA

A national survey of more than 2,500 religious leaders conducted in 2004 by Pulpit and Pew, a research project on pastoral leadership based at Duke Divinity School, found that 76 percent of Christian clergy were either overweight or obese, compared with 61 percent of the general population.

However, a 2009 study of the psychological and spiritual health of priests -- conducted by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America -- found that a much lower number, 46 percent of the nearly 2,500 priests surveyed identified themselves as overweight. That same study found that 26.3 percent of the priests surveyed listed themselves as obese, and 3.4 percent reported having a body mass index indicating they were morbidly obese.

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NEXT PAGE: A Priest’s Dramatic Before And After – Father Ryan’s story.

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A PRIEST’S DRAMATIC BEFORE AND AFTER

I’m not sure how many priests are overweight, but I know there are many, and I was one of them. I was dying.  My name is Father Ryan Rooney, and I am a priest of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. I was ordained in June of 2011 at the age of 26.

In October of 2013, I stepped on the scale at the rehab center for priests in Minnesota that I was sent to by my Bishop, and cringed as I faced the numbers 464 pounds. My face was sullen, hiding my large double chin under my beard. I was already humbled to step away from ministry for what I thought was simply a three week evaluation. I was in denial that I had an eating disorder, because I thought I could control what I ate, and I had demonstrated the ability to lose a lot of weight in seminary. I was angry. Why was I being singled out when others in authority and brother priests also had food and weight issues?

Even with all this anger, I knew I needed to change my life. It was increasingly hard for me to do most daily things, especially to keep up with the demands of ministry in an inner city bilingual parish. Now I had some time to devote myself to work on the underlying cause of my addiction and to learn what a lasting lifestyle of health and wellness would be for me. I hit the ground running. It turned into a very challenging but very rewarding five months of intense therapy, a twelve-step program, learning to count calories, portion my food, prepare my own meals, all while hitting it hard in the gym six days a week. I lost 100 pounds in five months, without the need for bariatric surgery. 

 

When I returned from the program into ministry I had to learn to balance the work of my recovery with the work of ministry.  I continued to track my meals, to go to meetings, to see a counselor, and to work out hard with trainers. I ran in my first 10k, and started pushing my physical limits.

Even when I was assigned to be a college campus chaplain (a potentially challenging environment to my improved eating habits) I found a very healthy surrounding community that was a great support. At a local gym I developed a love for spin (high intensity stationary biking). In the fall of 2016, after being reassigned as the leader of my current parish in Springfield, I became a certified spinning instructor, and started teaching my friends at my old gym. With all of this, I have lost a total of 245 pounds and kept that off for over a year.

My story illustrates a struggle many priests have. It also represents a level of support that few priests receive. I started sharing my story in a blog and it was printed in a major Catholic magazine. Reaching out in social media, I began to envision a ministry in the church for Catholic ministers, ordained and lay, who had experience in weight loss and fitness to recognize, understand, and address their needs. This led me to a priest in Fort Meyers, Florida.

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NEXT PAGE: Another Witness In The Fight – Father Casey’s story.

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ANOTHER WITNESS IN THE FIGHT

Father Casey Jones, having struggled with weight all of his life, was aware of a need for a change in his first year of priesthood.  “As priests we are always called to offer a gift of self, we are constantly giving, which can be exhausting on all levels: spiritual, emotional and physical. Within my first year of priestly ministry I realized that my own lack of self-care was inhibiting my own ability to fully give myself to the people of God.”

A Florida native, having fought obesity his entire life, Father Casey had limited success in various weight loss programs. Seminaries challenge men preparing for the priesthood to set goals in the area of Human Formation, which includes psychological and physical health along with social integration. Together with Spiritual, Pastoral and Intellectual Formation, Human Formation is one of the main “Pillars” or components of priestly formation. “But no matter how convincing someone’s reasons are for encouraging you to move into health, unless you are convinced that this is God’s plan the true motivation just isn’t there, and you will run out of steam.”

The reality of priestly ministry and the necessity of a renewed vision of health became apparent. “As priests, we have so little accountability to our own health and I knew that I had to make some changes and challenge myself.” While Father Casey, made some changes his first year, he still was unsuccessful in the long-term battle with obesity. “I realized that I needed help. I would lose and gain, constantly. Both parishioners and brother priests would offer encouragement, but when it came to the reality of needing to find time to budget exercise, prayer and healthy eating, the support did not seem consistent with the words of encouragement given. I realized that alone, I was bound to fail.”

Then a friend who had recently become dedicated to healthy lifestyles among members of the Church told Father Casey about my story.  “I knew I had to reach out to this guy.”, Jones observes. We connected first through the Internet and then through phone conversations.

These conversations would almost always turn to the need for an outreach to brother priests. “I literally know priests—young priests who have died because of inattentiveness to their own health. We do not exaggerate when we say lives are on the line. I know mine is as I still continue the battle.” Father Casey has lost over a hundred pounds. Having started the journey at close to 350 pounds, he knows he’s not “out of the woods” yet.   “There has been progress, and what Father Ryan and I have been for each other in terms of support has been irreplaceable.”

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NEXT PAGE: Priestfit Is Born – A practical solution to address the urgent need.

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PRIESTFIT IS BORN

“Shortly after Christmas we knew it was time.” Both of us had experienced some setbacks over the holidays and knew it was time to hold each other to a new level of accountably and reach out to brother priests. Thus was born Priestfit and the “Priestfit Presentation Challenge”.

Since the fourth century, Christians have commemorated the presentation of Jesus in the temple. We thought this would be a good time to challenge our brothers and to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. We reached out to brothers over social media offering daily videos and reflections to help them begin their journey into health.

Priestfit started from two priests needing encouragement, prayer and support. Today we are building a network of support and casting a vision to Eat Clean, Be Fit, Pray Well. We want to show the power of God’s grace to bring strength amidst weakness. As we’ve noted, priests are sadly dying on the job. Our message is to save lives and strengthen callings.

WHAT PRIESTFIT OFFERS

We are a very young ministry of fraternal outreach to priests. Very quickly we recognized the desire for a network of support and a means of sharing our stories. Facebook seemed to be a very easy first step in the process. Creating a closed priests only support group enabled priests to share their particular stories and struggles in a safe and private format. Our initial month long challenge provided a time table which would motivate our participants to develop virtues past the typical American two-week dropping-off point. Priests started to share their stories. They were ready for a change too.

 

As of April 2017 the group counted 120 members, with about 30 actively checking material every day. They are from all across the country, and Rome. Priests are losing weight. For some it isn’t about loss, but maintenance or dedication to their current way of life after transformations. The challenge gives priests hope for a better and healthier ministry.

Our Presentation Challenge topics are archived and include: how to stay motivated, how to track calories in versus calories out, developing accountability and fitness routines, and how we may be a witness in the church and in the gym. Our tag line, eat clean, be fit, pray well serves to hit three areas of importance in an overall healthy lifestyle for a priest: a good diet, a good exercise plan, and an integral spirituality. In Lent we are focused on biweekly meditations.

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NEXT PAGE: A Vision For The Future – Your invitation to take action.

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A VISION FOR THE FUTURE

Recently through a generous gift we were able to launch our website. Priestfit is already getting attention. We are humbled but also convinced that the Holy Spirit is doing something big. The people in the pews want happy and healthy priests. Our brothers want that too, though some live in denial and some without hope of change. What about the Priestfit message is strong and what are the challenges to sharing it?

We have identified a problem and a need in the Church. We have the witness of proven weight loss and methods of support and accountability. Having been obese men, we understand the battle with obesity as it pertains to men. We understand the priesthood, the complexities and the stresses of ministry in the Catholic Church, and the strength of our fraternity. The ability to connect the journey to this spiritual element is key, because there is a lot in the fitness industry that seeks to dissuade men who want to live chaste and holy lives.

We do recognize we have a long way to go and, like any good ministry, there will be spiritual attacks and resistance. As any addict experiences, there is a certain amount of denial that must be breached. We are looking at developing a means of informal and compassionate intervention, which invites our brother priests to join our support without fear of judgment or punishment.

We also see a certain amount of shaming in the Church for brothers who seek to better their own lives through diet and exercise regimens, which sometimes may conflict with the idea that priests are always on call. Having supportive family and friends is critical. Self-care isn’t selfish, it is necessary for long term and sustained ministry in the church. The tendency to over-spiritualize the priest, or to forgive Father’s over-indulgences is something that priests and laity suffer from greatly. Priestfit must also learn to become as inclusive in experience as possible, as we seek to highlight the witness of older priests with difficult health issues that prevent them from strenuous exercise or challenge their nutritional needs. Beyond social media we plan to offer a smartphone application and developing more one on one and small group accountability. We stand in faith that God will provide finances as our outreach continues to grow.

 

AN INVITATION TO HELP PRIESTFIT GROW

Father Casey and I are truly blessed to share our story with the readers of  Faith & Fitness Magazine. The moment we received the invitation from a primarily protestant focused magazine we thought, this is awesome! We are thankful for the quantity and scope of faith and fitness content and initiatives that are protestant generated. There is so much to be done in the Catholic Church on this subject.

We know too that those in ministry in other denominations also suffer from similar challenges, and so we encourage the wider church to support ministers who desire to lead healthy lifestyles yet are struggling. Priestfit welcomes the public to follow our journey and contact us on our website and public social media.

Prayer is so important in this journey. So, we ask you to pray for us, other church pastors and leaders and many more on staff serving congregations throughout the world. By praying first and foremost and then by engaging in compassionate friendship and support, you can demonstrate your solidarity and communicate, "You are not alone".

QUESTIONS FOR GROUP DISCUSSION AND PERSONAL REFLECTION:

1. Father Ryan identified that anger was a factor that worked against his spirit and his recovery to being whole in Christ. What do you think fuels the many expressions of anger we see in individuals that pervade much of today's culture? Honestly reflect and consider what may cause ongoing anger in your life. How does that affect you physically and spiritually? What can you do to get rid of that anger and also to promote greater peace in your areas of influence?

2. Obesity continues to be a dominant health condition for many with many contributing circumstances. If you identify as obese, what do you feel are the leading causes for you? Consider someone you know who is obese. How can you help that person? What makes a supportive environment, fueled by faith, ideal to bring about change and improvement? What barriers (real or imagined) keep you from being as supportive of others? What are some tangible ways you can demonstrate support to others?

3. For the person who invests in a Fixer Upper there are some identifiable qualities: They see potential beauty that others don't, they won't be deterred by surprises or challenges, and they see that their action brings value to the greater community. Consider how these qualities can be evident in you as you come together with others to give support and help them experience that they are not alone.


This cover story appears in the Church Fitness Department and the Men's Interest Department of the April/May 2017 issue of Faith & Fitness Magazine.

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